By Peter Morgan
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Countdown to 10 June: Wipe the Smiles Off their Faces

This article is over 17 years, 8 months old
Peter Morgan looks at the unique opportunity we have to teach Blair and Bush a lesson on 10 June.
Issue 285

There is one memorable moment in Errol Morris’s masterly new film The Fog of War, in which Robert S McNamara – the secretary of defence under Kennedy and Johnson and the man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese – admits that both he and Lyndon Johnson knew the US was embroiled in a war it could not win and a war it had to get out of. That point came, he admitted, after about 23,000 US servicemen and women had been killed. Yet the final total of US casualties in the Vietnam War ended up being 58,209.

Striking parallels

The point here, as McNamara later highlights in the film, is that once wars start they can move beyond the control of those who initiated them in the first place. And to stop a war or to pull out of an invaded country can be seen as more of a defeat than the decision to prosecute the war for longer. The war leaders are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. It is, as the title of the film says and as McNamara admits, the ‘fog of war’.

Socialist Review has not taken an editorial decision to start placing our film reviews in the news pages, but when you see this excellent film – and I would urge every reader to immediately rush to the cinema to do so – then there are a number of things that strike you. First is how close we came to a nuclear war and complete annihilation over the Bay of Pigs incident when the US threatened to nuke Cuba. Secondly, the movie graphically illustrates the numbers killed when the US firebombed Japan towards the end of the Second World War, a truly astonishing figure. Thirdly, you cannot avoid three words that just keeping coming into your head – Bush, Blair, Iraq – because there are striking parallels between the Vietnam War in the 1960s and what is unfolding in Iraq today.

It’s not that the total number of US casualties is yet as high as it reached in Vietnam. However, if you look at the graph that accompanies this article you will see that the number of US casualties in Iraq today is, in fact, higher than at a comparable stage at the beginning of the Vietnam War in the early 1960s. And the anti-war movement internationally, and dissent in Iraq are unfolding very much as before but at a much quicker pace.

Robert McNamara has since tried to repent of his sins. And in this film and a series of interviews, books and articles recently he has tried to come to terms with the horror of what happened in Vietnam, his role in it and what the US did wrong. We should shed no tears for someone who, by his own admission, should have been declared a war criminal if the US had lost the war with Japan. But what is revealing is what he says about the war in Iraq today: ‘It’s just wrong what we’re doing. It’s morally wrong, it’s politically wrong, it’s economically wrong,’ he stated in an interview in the US Globe and Mail in January. McNamara joins a growing list of US establishment figures who are now openly questioning what their leaders are doing as the war unfolds in Iraq and the US finds itself in a quagmire from which there seems no escape. And it is this, combined with the level of opposition, that makes the position of Bush and Blair so precarious.

Those of us in the anti-war movement argued that this would happen-that tens of thousands of innocent people would be killed, that a country would be decimated and that Bush and Blair’s business friends would use the invasion to pillage the country and rob it of its wealth and resources. We also argued that the Iraqi people would not sit idle while their country was invaded and occupied. However, the anti-war movement has little time to dwell on ‘told you so’s’ because we still have the huge task of bringing those responsible for this war to account.

The urgency of this task becomes even more important as the war in Iraq enters a new phase. Bush and his gang have committed more troops to the area. Blair stands on the lawns of the White House and sanctimoniously preaches about the need for peace and stability in the Middle East. Yet no sooner do the words leave his mouth than the Israeli military, buoyed up by Sharon’s visit to the US and with the green light from Bush and Blair, decides to assassinate yet another Palestinian political leader.

The next battle

So the tasks of the anti-war and peace movement are as important today as they were on the eve of war, and arguably even more so. The next battle against our warmonger leader is just around the corner. The elections for the European Parliament on 10 June give us an opportunity to deliver a verdict on Blair and his government, the first national election since the war in Iraq began. Also Londoners have the opportunity to vote for a mayor and for members of the London Assembly.

In the last three years the anti-war movement, and the Stop the War Coalition in particular, have had some remarkable achievements: the largest ever demonstration in British history; the largest demonstration against a war that had started; the largest ever weekday demonstration when the Butcher of Baghdad, George Bush, was holed up in Buckingham Palace. The Stop the War Coalition has built a network of groups and supporters that reaches every area of the country and every social group of the population. Such is the quagmire that is unfolding in Iraq that in the coming weeks and months there will be plenty of opportunities to mobilise this movement to build further protests and demonstrations.

The strength, vitality and diversity of the anti-war movement have been built over the last few years by the huge national protests as well as local demonstrations, meetings and rallies. It is a political phenomenon of truly historic proportions. Yet now we need to direct our energies for the next battle on a terrain with which we are less familiar, that of electoral politics.

For many in the anti-war movement this presents a strange paradox. Turnout for the European elections has historically been very low. The prediction is that the turnout for this year’s election could also be low. In part this reflects a healthy disdain that many have for the official electoral process in general and politicians in particular. This is not surprising for the European elections given the pay and perks MEPs receive. Yet for this forthcoming election the anti-war movement has a voice and a group of people to represent it that could further deepen the problems for Blair and make the possibility of peace in Iraq more likely.

If you have any doubt of the impact a bad vote for New Labour would have come 10 June it is worth casting your mind back a few weeks to the recent Spanish election. Just prior to the election we were told that Aznar, a strong supporter of Bush and Blair’s war, would be returned to power. I’m sure I was not the only one dismayed by this prediction given the huge anti-war movement that had taken over the streets of Spanish cities in recent years. Then Spain witnessed the terrible bombing in Madrid and the political defeat of Aznar as he felt the huge anti-war backlash. Commentators concluded that it dealt a blow to pro-war forces throughout the world and the anti-war movement had scored a huge success – a view reinforced by the newly elected government rapidly withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq. The Economist’s front page showed the world’s four leading pro-war leaders – Bush, Blair, Australia’s John Howard, and Aznar – with the figure of Aznar crossed out and the headline ‘One Down, Three To Go’.

Imagine the impact it would have if Blair suffered a similar humiliation in early June. It’s not that we can get him out, or not yet at least, but we can inflict a blow on Blair and New Labour that would have serious ramifications, not least in the White House where the election for president is only a matter of months away. While it would be naive to promote John Kerry as an anti-war candidate – he has refused to criticise Israel’s assassination policy and supports more troops in Iraq – there is no doubt that an embarrassment for Blair would be a huge boost for the US anti-war movement.

And so our eyes must turn to the electoral process, while never forgetting the need to keep the pressure up over the horror of the war. In this election there are a number of candidates standing who opposed the war in Iraq. Respect: The Unity Coalition was formed to bring together many of the forces and political figures involved in the anti-war movement although some, such as the Green Party, have decided not to unite in one broad coalition. Nevertheless Respect has formed a formidable electoral alternative that offers voters a real choice come 10 June – and not just about the war. Respect will fight to promote religious and sexual equality and freedom, and against neoliberalism and rule by the rich. After a series of meeting and rallies held up and down the country a number of candidates have been selected to represent the coalition. This includes well known leaders within the movement, such as the MP George Galloway, who is running for the European Parliament in London, and Lindsey German, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, who is the Respect candidate for London mayor and heads Respect’s list for the London Assembly.

But just as impressive are the many individuals who have been selected throughout the country who give a real flavour of the diversity and strength of the movement that has developed. Oliur Rahman, a local job centre worker and PCS striker, is one of Respect’s candidates for the London Assembly. In Wales the writer, actress and Swansea Coalition Against War activist Helen Griffin is standing, as is Taran O’Sullivan, who is the Secretary of Cardiff Against War. The Muslim Association of Britain’s president, Anas Altikriti, has stood down to represent Respect and contest the European parliamentary seat of Yorkshire & Humberside. In the South West Paulette North, the Bristol NUT assistant secretary and prominent asylum rights campaigner, is to head the list for the European seat. And in the West Midlands, alongside well known activists John Rees and Salma Yaqoob, is also Winifred Whitehouse, the Unison steward at the Dudley group of hospitals.

The list of candidates is impressive. It comprises individuals committed to peace in the Middle East, the end of the war in Iraq, and for the US and British troops to get out. More important, however, is the fact that they have been active from the beginning, organising the meetings and protests, speaking at rallies and demonstrations against war, as well as in various struggles against privatisations and for workers’ rights.

We have only a few weeks to harness the strength and power of this movement and inflict a significant defeat on the warmongers. I’m sure that as you watched Bush and Blair stare blissfully into each other’s eyes on the lawn on the White House recently like two lovers caught up in the joys of spring, there is nothing you would have loved better than to have the smug smiles and looks of self satisfaction wiped from their faces. Well, now we have the opportunity to do just that.

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